Sometimes we don’t choose to change, but rather change is thrust upon us. It comes to us when we have no say in the matter. And often that change can be a negative change; a turn for the worst. A divorce. An illness. A death. A job loss. A family feud.
Psalm 77 begins with, “I cry aloud to God.” A change has come. A turn for the worst. How do we respond? Allow me to lift up four things from Psalm 77– four ways to face negative change.
Name it Honestly
The Psalms are known for their brutal honesty. They are filled with tension and angst that walk on the precipice of sacrilege. You sometimes wonder, “Can you say that to God?” The Psalms are honest about pain, doubt, and anger. Verses 7-9 question whether God’s goodness is good anymore:
“Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Notice the attributes of God that he uses: “favor,” “steadfast love,” “promises,” “graciousness,” “compassion.” These are the very best of God. These are the heart and soul of God, what makes him distinct from any other God. And yet the Psalmist feels like God’s greatest attributes are absent. And that is a lonely place to be.
When negative change happens, we have to name it honestly. We have to identify it and express it. You can’t confront an enemy you don’t know. It’s easy to live in denial about an illness, a loss, a death, a broken relationship. Avoidance is a human default mode. But this only causes the pain to fester and spread like cancer. We must honestly name our situation.
Look Behind to go Ahead
It is common in Scripture, particularly in the Psalms, to look behind to go ahead. In other words, if you wonder what God will do in the future, you look to what he's done in the past.
“I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.” (v. 11)
You walk into the future knowing what God has has already done. He has a track record, a resume, and a body of work you can refer to. Within a relationship of trust, you can be confident of the future because you've seen what he's done in the past.
Every change, positive or negative, comes with a period of chaos. Verses 16 and 17 describe aquatic indigestion:
“When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side.”
It is likely that the Psalmist is referring to the Exodus and the very impulsive, wild, and raw reaction of creation itself. God’s act of redemption begins with a chaotic motion of upset waters. In Scripture, water is associated with chaos. There are the deep waters in early creation, the flood, Jonah on the sea, and Jesus calming the chaos of storms. The sea is unpredictable and potentially deadly.
In any change, you should expect a time of chaos. There is a classic book on organizational change called Managing Transitions by William Bridges. He states that in every transition there is what’s called a “neutral zone,” a period of instability. It’s an in-between time when everything is realigning and resetting.
A similar notion is expressed by Lovett Weems in his book Church Leadership: “Everything seems like failure in the middle.” Don’t allow the chaos to overwhelm you. Expect it. If God is up to something, chaos will ensue.
Walk Through the Sea
“Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters” (Ps. 77:19).
In the Exodus, God’s way was THROUGH the sea. The brutality of Pharaoh was marching from behind them. The dead end of a sea was before them. They were trapped. So how does God deliver them? He doesn't go around the sea. He doesn't go over the sea. He goes THROUGH the sea. He doesn't deliver them with a bridge or an escape hatch, but by going THROUGH the obstacle itself.
Why does God do this? God often leads THROUGH a challenge as an act of self-revelation. He leads THROUGH danger in order to prove his power. If he would have brought Israel around the sea, it could have been attributed to the crafty strategy of Moses. But by going THROUGH the sea, there was no mistaking this for anything but an act of God.
What is the “sea” that you’re being led through? There is something that you’re suffering through, confused about, or anxious over. You just want to get past it, around it, or over it. “Just make it end!” But God leads you THROUGH it. Maybe you've always known about God’s power, but you've never fully experienced it. And so he leads you THROUGH the sea, so that you might be utterly melted by his mercy and might.
Pastor Amos Bolay is the president of the Lutheran Church of Liberia. He is a friend of our congregation, and he was in St. Louis for a two week doctoral course. I spoke with him this past week and he was telling me about his story. In the early 1990’s, Liberia underwent a violent civil war. Amos fled and entered neighboring Guinea as a refugee.
As a young pastor, Amos began preaching in the refugee camp. Soon he met a Lutheran missionary and the two of them started speaking the gospel to tribes and towns in Guinea who had never heard of Christ. Amos listed the names of villages they journeyed to. At one there were 136 baptisms in one day. In the next village there were 119 baptisms. And so on. Then he said this: “War is a terrible thing. But God even uses terrible things for his purpose. Now the gospel is in Guinea.”
The Cross is the same paradigm. It is God’s way THROUGH the sea. He did not go over or around the cross, but through it. He did not come to rescue us by snapping his fingers or waving a wand. His took the long road and the tragic way. He chose the path of suffering and betrayal, of tears and blood, of agony and death. But now you know what you never would have known otherwise. That God spares nothing for you. God’s compassion is a well whose bottom has never been discovered.
You might well being facing a negative change today. Name it honestly. Look behind to go ahead. Expect chaos. And walk through the sea.